Friday, March 8, 2013

Using the Web to Improve Care for Depression

I've imagined that if I were starting my career in psychiatry now I'd work at the intersection of clinical care and the web. A recent article on "Web-Delivered Care Management and Patient Self-Management Program for Recurrent Depression: A Randomized Trial" convinces me to stick with my fantasy about what I'd do if reincarnated.

The project was conducted at The Permanente Medical Group in Northern California. Patients with chronic or recurrent depression were invited to participate in a randomized trial of usual care compared to usual care plus a web-based care management and patient self-management program that was available for 12 months. The web program included self-monitoring tools, secure messaging with a nurse care manager, depression education stressing cognitive behavioral methods, a monitored discussion group, a personal database, task lists, and an appointment calendar. Interviewers blind to the treatment condition interviewed the patients at 6,12, 18 and 24 months. Participants could enlist a "care partner" for whom web-based materials were also available.

The outcomes were impressive. The "experimental" group had significantly greater reduction in depression that lasted through the year after the web-based intervention ended. They had more confidence in their ability to cope with the mood disorder and more satisfaction with their care. The intervention itself cost $345 per participant. The nurse care manager logs indicated that a nurse could manage 200 patients in ten hours a week. There was no difference in total medical costs between the two groups.

So why do I write about this on an ethics blog?

In 1994 I was asked to edit a quarterly column about managed care for the American Psychiatric Association journal Psychiatric Services. (I edited and wrote the column for ten years.) Readers probably wanted to read about the evils of managed care, but I felt there was more than enough managed care bashing available, and chose to develop columns on how to manage care in ways that were clinically informed and ethically admirable. My underlying belief was, and is, that managed care, "appropriately" conducted, is the most ethical way to structure a health care system.

The e-care program at Kaiser Permanente took evidence-based components of effective treatment for depression and "re-engineered" them into an efficient web-based format. The medical group carried out the intervention and studied it in a rigorous manner. Their work combined clinical innovation with development of valuable new knowledge. The intervention appears to deliver more benefit at no increase in cost. "Benefit" is a bland word, but anyone who has experienced depression or is close to someone who has knows how much suffering the condition can entail.

There's an ethical imperative for us clinicians to evaluate what we do in order to make treatment more effective and efficient over time. That's what the team at Kaiser Permanente and their colleagues did. It would have been clinically and ethically acceptable for them to have implemented the program without studying its results, but they conducted research along with implementing the program. As a result, we're smarter and have new tools for making treatment better. That's why I write about their work in an ethics blog!

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